Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Criterion Christmas 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Criterion Christmas 2011

by Tony Dayoub

As Christmas bears down on us, some things have gotten lost in the shuffle due to the sheer number of movies I'm watching for awards voting and end-of—year lists. Fortunately, you, dear reader, seem to love such lists, allowing me to use them as a sort of catchall for any reviews I've fallen behind on. Consider this one a list of my top recommendations for Criterion's 4th quarter releases or, at the very least, a small Criterion Holiday gift guide.

Standing tall in the cinematic firmament is a movie which actually owes more to television and stage conventions, the late Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957). Released for the first time on Blu-ray, Criterion has included a bevy of essential extras, the best of which is the original one-hour live television production directed by Franklin Schaffner for Studio One. Starring Robert Cummings in the role later made famous by Henry Fonda (and a ravaged Franchot Tone in the Lee J. Cobb part), the teleplay is most fascinating as an example of how one solid script (by Reginald Rose) can yield two equally powerful, yet different, interpretations despite virtually no modifications. "Tragedy in a Temporary Town," another stirring TV episode (this one from The Alcoa Hour) scripted by Rose, is also included as a point of comparison with the movie since it was directed by Lumet. Taken together, both TV shows demonstrate how 12 Angry Men employed some of the tricks that Lumet and his peers used in television and theater productions to produce a fascinating courtroom drama. Rounding out the special features is a documentary tribute to Boris Kaufman (younger brother of noted Russian director Dziga Vertov), the underrated cinematographer who worked on many of Lumet's films before retiring in 1970.

George betrayed me for you. Without wishing to flatter you, I understood that. I can still understand it. But you betrayed me for George, an incredible choice!
Ignore Tom's rebuke to Gilda after she disrupts the Design for Living (1933) the two concocted along with the third side of their triangle, George. The best chemistry in Ernst Lubitsch's pre-code comedy isn't between Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) and her competing suitors, playwright Tom (Fredric March) and painter George (Gary Cooper). It's between the two gentlemen themselves whose natural rapport, enhanced by their shared experiences as expatriate roommates living in "gay Paree," is possibly gayer than the film immediately lets on. Tom and George may share a mutual ardor for the crackle-witted, sunshine-tressed Gilda. But their bickering is far more accomplished than that of many married couples, or even their respective banter with Gilda herself, each often cutting the other where it hurts—their respective artwork, and by extension lashing Gilda who has assumed the role of designated muse and "Mother of the Arts" for each of the boys. Hopkins is radiant, yes, but the real revelation is the lightness with which Cooper and March carry themselves through Ben Hecht's snappy script. (Cooper, for one, was a lumbering, strong, silent type, in many ways an early forerunner to John Wayne.) Cooper and March's charm is never more evident than in a scene where George and Tom, commiserating in a drunken stupor after Gilda leaves them, decide to toast her ad agency instead:
George: To Kaplan and Maguire (raising his glass in a toast).
Tom: Don't be hasty (stopping George). To Kaplan.
(both raise their glasses and take a swig)
And now, to Maguire!
(both raise their glasses at the chance for another swallow)

In the more introspective Identification of a Woman(Identificazione di una donna) (1982), the triangle consists of one man and two women. Cuban tough guy Tomás Milián stands in for Michelangelo Antonioni in one of the director's most accessible, if still somewhat elusive, films. Milián plays Niccolò, a recently divorced film director who starts receiving threats because he is sleeping with the rich Mavi (Daniela Silverio). Class differences between the two lovers are at the root of their fraught relationship, the tensions of which come to a head in a stunning atmospheric sequence in which the two drive to the country for a getaway only to get mired in a thick fog that sparks an explosive argument. Mavi's brief disappearance after she asks to be let out of the vehicle probably inspired a fuller reinterpretation, depicted for more harrowing effect, in the 1988 Dutch film The Vanishing. But Mavi's disappearance isn't as insidious in Identification, where it simply spurs Niccolò to reflect on his inability to understand the opposite sex. It's an important point driven home by the relationship he next begins with the earthier Ida (Christine Boisson), an actress who perceptively sizes up Niccolò as a man with little understanding of feminine nuances. By film's end, Niccolò is no closer to understanding women than he was at the start; but at least he more readily accepts the ambiguity of it all.

Finally, what Ingmar Bergman film is more appropriate for Yuletide than Fanny and Alexander (1982), reissued just last month. Bergman plunges us into the harrowing household of Biskop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), where the young titular characters are forced to move after their recently widowed mother Emelie Ekdahl (Ewa Fröling) marries the clergyman. But not before allowing us the pleasure of seeing the warm lifestyle the children left behind in the film's first act. Alexander (Bertil Guve) delights in a postcard-style Christmas at the home his family shares with grandmother and matriarch, Helena (Gunn Wållgren), etching, in our minds and his, the joy and melancholy of his final days spent with his father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), before his untimely passing. As is typical of Bergman, Oscar's death isn't the end of his appearances in the film. It is simply an indication of the many levels of existence, both earthly and beyond, that Alexander begins to be aware of. Both the three-hour theatrical cut and the five-hour television opus, a true masterpiece, are available in this box set along with a feature-length documentary on the making of Bergman's very personal film.

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